Del McCoury Band

0

The legendary picker more than 50 years into touring still oozes Southern hospitality and charm

Gothic Theatre | March 27
Breckenridge RiverWalk Center | March 28
Boulder Theater | March 29
Aggie Theatre | March 31

del-mccoury-feature-marquee-magazine

By Timothy Dwenger

Since 1967, Del McCoury — through work with a variety of band combinations of his brother Jerry and his sons Ronnie and Rob — has climbed the bluegrass ladder to his now highly perched position as a legendary veteran on the scene.

No matter the era, McCoury’s open-minded approach to the genre has stayed true to many of the tenets of “traditional” bluegrass passed down from the father of the genre himself, Bill Monroe, while still allowing enough creative leeway in those stone-etched tenets to continually excite and re-engage more progressive artists and audiences.

McCoury’s journey started early in 1963, several years before he released his first solo album, when the young banjo picker found himself with a job offer from none other than Mr. Monroe. The only catch, it wasn’t to play banjo. “He needed a guitar player and he needed a lead singer in the worst way,” McCoury explained while chatting on a land-line from his home in Hendersonville Tennessee. “He wanted me to try that job so I did, against my own will I tried it. I knew how to play a guitar but I had to brush up on it. The toughest part of it all was me having to learn all the verses to the songs that he wanted to do. I thought ‘Well, I’ll go back to playing the banjo someday’ but I never seriously did that. I never did go back.”

While McCoury only lasted a year as a Blue Grass Boy, the experience shaped his life and in 1968 he released Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass, the first of more than 30 albums that led up to the 2018 release of his 50th-anniversary record. “My son Ronnie said ‘I’d like to call this album Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass’ and, I don’t know, for some reason I didn’t much want to do that, but I said ‘Okay, go ahead,’” the good-natured McCoury admitted.

With nearly 60 years on the road under his belt, McCoury is still going strong as he gears up for a duo show with David “Dawg” Grisman and a lengthy run of shows with the Del McCoury Band that includes stops at the legendary Ryman Auditorium and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. “I still feel good!” he explained simply before revealing that his son’s other band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s, came about as a result of some careful contingency planning. “When I got up there to about 70 [he’s now 81] I think it was me and my wife and my manager started talking, if something would happen to me — if my health would fail — there’s no telling what can happen when you pass 70.  We thought we should get these boys out on the road, and get them something started, because they were dependent on me, the whole band was. So, my manager said ‘I’ll get them their own booking agent and we’ll see what they can do.’ God, they are busy now! I think I’ll ask ‘em for a job!” laughed the patriarch.

While there is no doubt that McCoury is proud of the career his sons have made for themselves out from under his shadow, his sense of humor shined again as he discussed working so closely with them for so long. “I’m just fortunate that they are good enough musicians to put on the record,” he joked and then turned a bit more serious. “There have been challenges but it seemed to ease up a bit when we got the boys out on the road with their own band cause then, when they had ideas, they could put them on their record and put those ideas out there from the stage. It was good for them, it really was. A young guy has ideas for things and it’s not like what pop does. They respect what I do and they like doing what I do, they really do, but it’s better this way; they get to go out there and let off steam on their own.”

Some of that steam has filtered its way back into their father’s band and while the elder McCoury gave up setlists in favor of requests from the audience long ago, the boys are bringing some improvisation into the mix as well. “We have some tunes where we’ll jam. For example, I never know what they are going to do on ‘My love will not change.’ I think me and Ronnie sing a little part of it and then all hell breaks loose after that,” he said chuckling. “At the end of it all, I never know when to come back in and finish it — I sing a little line at the end of the song — unless Ronnie glances over at me, then I know it’s time for me to come in and sing the last line of the song. It’s one of those songs you can jam out on. It’s fun.”

McCoury’s respect for the innovative and progressive ideas The Travelin’ McCoury’s have built their reputation on extend far beyond the family. “Everybody has their own idea about music and I respect that in anybody,” he said. “You just have to be yourself when you do what you do.”

One of the best-known pickers and singers in the modern era of bluegrass is Sam Bush and McCoury shared an interesting tidbit about how a chance meeting at a festival helped to shape Bush’s future and allow him to be more himself on stage. “I’ve known Sam since before he sang a note,” McCoury said. “I played a festival in Florida — it was at George Jones’ house — and I was booked on it and Sam was booked on it with one of his early bands. He was not a singer then, he was just playing the mandolin. I knew him and me and my boys were jamming with some other guys at night and Sam walks up and I said ‘get your mandolin and play some with us.’ He said ‘I can’t play a note, I got my hand caught in a car door.’ He couldn’t hold a pick so I said ‘look, if you can’t play then sing something with me.’  Well we did, we sang something and he told me later ‘When I got back to my campsite I said I can sing, I’m gonna sing from now on.’ I encouraged him to sing with me that night in that jam session and he’s been singing ever since.”

While it’s likely that Bush would have found his voice on his own eventually, McCoury’s encouragement allowed him to get outside his comfort zone and launch a career focused on breaking down boundaries and adding new ideas to the collective consciousness. This concept is the foundation of the folk tradition and McCoury was quick to connect the dots all the way back to the Father of Bluegrass. “Bill Monroe had his own sound, then all those guys who came through his band through the years, they took it and got their own sound. Like Flatt and Scruggs did and Mac Wiseman did and Jimmy Martin.”

This evolution has obviously continued through today with bands like Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, and Billy Strings exploring new terrain and McCoury was quick to point out that he’s been supportive of the progressive movement since his early days on the scene. “Back in the day people would say ‘what do you think of Sam Bush’s band?’  Back then they were like black sheep in the bluegrass world — and I said ‘Hey man, I like what they do, there are gonna be more people liking their music than a lot of us because they are playing to the young people and that’s what we need.’ The young people are the saviors of this music. If it wasn’t for the young people we might as well just close up shop.”

Gothic Theatre | March 27
Breckenridge RiverWalk Center | March 28
Boulder Theater | March 29
Aggie Theatre | March 31

Go If You Dig:

  • Billy Strings
  • Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
  • Peter Rowan
Cool, Share this article:

Leave A Reply